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Natural Navigation in the UK

The natural world has been helping people find their way since the paleolithic era, and it’s been helping animals to do the same for even longer. This is still the case, for those that know how to spot them, the natural world provides signs and markers that can help find water, food, and direction. This blog post introduces the concept of natural navigation and provides an overview which will help you get started.

As always, please feel to read the whole blog or click on the links below to skip to the section that interests you.


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What is natural navigation 

Natural navigation is something that,  theoretically, all of us, can access.  In his seminal book ‘Finding your way without map or compass’ the legendary Harold Gatty states;

“a man with a good sense of direction is, to me, quite simply an able pathfinder – a natural navigator – somebody who can find his way by the use of the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch, the senses that he was born with) developed by the blessing of experience and the use of intelligence”.

In short, someone who is merely skilled at noticing the signs around him and interpreting these signs.  

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Early examples of  great uses of natural navigation

Natural navigation early examples

Humankind has always been developing methods of navigation. The compass can be dated back to around 206 BC, and issues determining longitude and latitude plagued early modern navigators well into the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite this, early humans traveled hundreds, if not thousands, of miles using only the natural signs around them to find their way out and of course, home.


Navigation in 3000-1000 BC

There is evidence to suggest that between the years 3000 and 1000 BC the people that became to be known as Polynesians traveled thousands of miles across the open Pacific ocean; spreading their culture and their language, with only natural navigation. Australian aborigines passed down ways of finding one’s way across the often featureless landscape through the medium of song and dance. The routes described in these songs were known as Songlines . They often followed the stars, with lyrics and movements to the song acting as memory aids for the routes.

In short, natural navigation, like most things in bushcraft is about being at one with the natural environment. It’s about knowing how to spot and then interpret the signs that nature is showing you.

How can different elements help us to navigate

Natural navigation with trees

This blog is not supposed to be an in-depth guide to natural navigation, to learn these skills in detail it is worth attending a course. This blog merely provides a general introduction to natural navigation.

Natural navigation with trees/plants

Aside from the sun and the moon, trees and plants are among the best tools for natural navigation. The best way to use trees and plants in terms of natural navigation is as direction finders.

Trees, plants and the sun 

Trees are rarely symmetrical. Look for the side of the tree that appears ‘heavier’, or more abundant in terms of leaves and branches. In the UK if a tree is relatively isolated then the abundance of foliage on one side will indicate a southerly direction. This is because the southern side of a tree gets the most sun, so it naturally grows in that direction.  Additionally, branches on the southern side are likely to grow out in a horizontal direction,  those on the northern side are likely to grow upwards in an effort to reach the limited sunlight.

The effects of sunlight on the directional growth of a tree will become very confused in wooded environments. For this reason, it is better to consider isolated trees when trying to establish direction. 

Trees, plants and the wind

Trees and plants help to provide a clue as to the general trend in terms of wind direction. In the UK the trend is for the prevailing wind to blow in from the southeast, that is it travels from a southeast to a northeast direction. This often means that the tops of exposed trees exhibit a sort of combed effect, with the ends of the branches pointing in a northeasterly direction.

Using natural navigation to estimate distance 

Estimating the distance to an object relevant to your position is a key aspect of navigation. When combined with a direction it enables you to triangulate your position on a map with pinpoint accuracy. Being able to judge direction enables you to estimate how long it will take to reach your destination. With that in mind here are some natural ways to judge distance if you don’t have a map or a compass. 

Learn more about natural navigation, foraging, water sourcing and other bushcraft skills on our weekend bushcraft course.
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Use your fingers

This section should more correctly be titled, ‘judging distance using parallax’, but that’s not very snappy. Parallax is, in short, a method of judging distance by holding out a finger and shutting your eyes. It works like this; when you hold your finger out straight in front of you and view it only using your left eye, then, keeping your finger out in front of you, view it only using your right eye, it seems to have moved. This phenomenon is known as parallax. 

To use this to measure distance, hold your finger out in front of you so that it is pointing upwards in line with the object that you wish to know the distance of. View your finger through only your left eye, then, without moving your finger, view it only through your right eye. Note how many feet along the object your finger appears to have moved. Your distance from the object will be ten times the distance that you perceive your finger to have moved.

For example, if your finger appears to have moved thirty feet the object will be approximately three hundred feet away from your current position.

Judging distance with natural navigation


Know your distances

It is also worth remembering some key distances. Keep in mind that, like many elements of natural navigation, these are rough tools and not entirely accurate. With thanks to Harold Gatty’s ‘Finding your way without map or compass’ rough distances are:  

46 metres/50 yards: a person’s facial features, such as eyes and mouth, can be clearly seen.
275 metres/300 yards: the outline of faces can be seen.
1600 metres/1 mile: large tree trunks can be seen.
4km/2.5 miles: you can just about make out chimneys and windows
14.5km/9 miles: the average church tower or steeple can be seen.

Using the sun

When it comes to natural navigation the sun is one of the best indicators of direction. Roughly speaking, the sun rises in the east and settles in the west. However, it is only twice a year that the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west.

One of the simplest ways of navigating using the sun is through the use of sun tables. These are tables that relate the latitude and time of day to the angle that the sun will be at. Having a copy of these tables jotted down in the back of your notebook helps you to establish direction.  Harold Gatty’s book, ‘Finding your way without map or compass’ features some excellent examples of these tables.

Get started with natural navigation

Don’t throw away the map and the compass just yet. One of the best ways of getting started with natural navigation is to incorporate elements of nature in your normal navigation when on your next trip. For example, how does the position of the sun relate to the direction you’re heading in? How far away do you estimate the church in the distance to be?


Next week

Next week we will be looking at how to find your way without a map or compass in more detail.
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